Writing has always been hard for Liam, especially when he starting school. He does not think creatively, and most writing (thankfully) in Kindergarten and 1st is creative.
When a teacher tells a child on the autism spectrum to write about anything they want, the student takes that literally. Thinking about all of those choices will often cause them to “shut down” or have complete writer’s block. Write about anything? Too many choices to pick from. I don’t know what to do.
There are also students with ASD who struggle with physically writing. They have had, or currently have occupational therapy to learn how to use scissors and write legibly. Remember low muscle tone? Because of it, for some students, writing is exhausting. (This was not the case with Liam who has exquisite handwriting and even practiced writing cursive letters for “fun”). Any accommodations, or therapy that can support strengthening the muscles in the hand will help, but coupled with not knowing what to write, some students avoid writing as much as possible. We know how hard it is to close the gaps for writers who do not practice.
Starting out, teachers can work to make writing a “concrete” experience. When students experience success and create those writing territories (I will talk more about writing as I address each of Liam’s school years, to add to the bank of strategies), they will be more inclined to participate.
So, in Kindergarten, Kid Writing-like techniques can be extremely helpful. The student can verbally share their story with the teacher who records it and reminds the student what he/she said as he/she works to write the story down. Or, the student spends time drawing, then writes to describe the drawing. This type of writing (describing) can establish a strong foundation for how to add details to sentences later on.
In first grade, I found that using mentor texts (please see Rose Cappelli and Lynne Dorfman’s three books: Mentor Texts, Nonfiction Mentor Texts, and Poetry Mentor Texts by Stenhouse), is an incredible way to provide writing support. Mentor texts offer both a model for what is expected (explicit instruction), as well as ideas to imitate (scaffolding), if needed.
Is it wrong, at first, if a student will imitate the subject or structure of the mentor text? It depends upon the student. If I don’t write at all, but I will imitate the text and infuse a few of my own ideas, to get me writing? Go for it. Am I ready to branch out on my own a bit? Then, the teacher can gradually release the student from depending upon the text as much.
I know that whenever I go to write anything for the first time (like my first letter to parents as the Title I coordinator), I looked at the letter that went out the previous year. I probably didn’t change much beyond the date and the name, at first. Now I can write these letters, because I understand the requirements and the law better than I did in my first few months on the job.
Mentor texts afford writers the opportunity to see what a teachers means when he or she says, write a story about… or write a poem about…, and help them successfully navigate a world of endless possibilities that, while helping some thrive (on choice), make others feel overwhelmed with how to begin. Mentors texts offer the beginning of understanding how writing looks, what writers do, and how to become a writer.